Alberta Health Services announced Tuesday it would require all employees and contracted health-care providers — including physicians — to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19.
"Health care workers have an ethical and professional responsibility to protect others, for many that is the driving force behind why they do what they do," Dr. Verna Yiu said during Tuesday's announcement.
"This necessary step is required to protect patients, vulnerable and immunocompromised Albertans and anyone who visits or works at any AHS site," she added.
The policy applies to AHS, Alberta Precision Labs, Carewest, CapitalCare and Covenant Health workers, members of medical and midwifery staffs, students, volunteers and anyone acting on their behalf.
Contracted continuing care providers and health-care workers acting on AHS' behalf all fall under the requirement.
Employees will have to get their second shot by Oct. 16 in order to be considered fully vaccinated by the end of October.
"Immunization for frontline health-care workers are not new," Yiu said. "For example, staff who have not been immunized for influenza may be reassigned to other areas or restricted from working."
Staff are also already required to submit immunization records for communicable diseases like measles and hepatitis B.
AHS has more than 100,000 direct employees with around 12,000 staff at AHS subsidiaries. Covenant Health has almost 15,000 physicians, workers, and volunteers.
With a deadline of Oct. 31, the latest an individual must receive their second dose to be in compliance is Oct. 16 so as to allow two weeks to pass for full immunization. Vaccine appointments are available on the same day or next day around the province and there is an ample supply according to Yiu.
She said that the decision was made strictly by AHS and its leadership team.
"This is not politically driven in any way," Yiu said. "We did make [Health Minister Tyler Shandro] aware. But, at the end of the day, this was an organizational decision."
AHS employees unable to be vaccinated due to a medical reason or a protected ground under the Alberta Human Rights Act will be "reasonably accommodated," said the release.
When asked to clarify what that could mean, Yiu said being moved into virtual care positions was a possibility.
Staff members who refuse to get the shot but are unable to provide a vaccination exemption will be dealt with on a case-by-case basis.
The policy document is to be finalized following union and stakeholder consultation.
That document will also help AHS leadership find out how many employees are already vaccinated. Currently, that is not information that AHS currently has access to. However, Yiu said that much like health-care workers in other places, she expects health-care worker vaccine uptake to be higher than the general population.
In addition to the vaccine requirements, current health system capacity concerns were also addressed during Tuesday's announcement.
Dr. Braden Manns, associate chief medical officer, said the north zone is currently feeling the brunt of the current surge, especially Grande Prairie's Queen Elizabeth II Hospital.
"They had a significant number of admissions late last week. That resulted in the need to close an operating room, which impacts about 45 non-urgent surgeries per week," Manns said.
The rise continued over the weekend, according to Manns, which saw nine patients transferred to other hospitals.
He also said the hospital re-opened its COVID-19 ward on Monday.
The early warning system AHS is using is tracking on the mid to high-end of projections.
"We are concerned about the direction that we are heading," Manns said.